Beaufort County was wrong to deny Grays Hill Baptist Church's request for a 10,000-square-foot addition to its campus on U.S. 21, according to a local judge.
County Master-in-Equity Marvin Dukes ruled this month that the church should be allowed to build the fellowship hall included in a 1997 master plan approved by the county.
The decision nullifies, for now at least, a 2011 Planning Commission decision denying the new building, which would be constructed in a buffer zone designed to reduce development around Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
"Beaufort County is directed to allow ... Grays Hill Baptist Church to conclude the development of its property and proceed with the construction of the fellowship hall," Dukes wrote in the 21-page decision.
The county plans to ask Dukes to reconsider his ruling, county attorney Josh Gruber said. If that route is unsuccessful, an appeal is likely.
That would extend the nearly five-year dispute for months or even years.
"From a legal standpoint, there are a number of issues we have with this order," Gruber said. "It is very broadly drafted and deals with some issues that are contrary to law."
The church wants to build the expansion on its 9.5-acre campus off Trask Parkway. It's been held up because the property falls within a zone, designated in 2006, to reduce ground casualties in the event of an airplane crash, Gruber said.
Two years later, development in the zone was restricted further, reducing new additions to properties within the zone to 15 percent of the size of the existing structure. The Grays Hill project exceeds that standard, which would limit the proposed fellowship hall to about 2,500 square feet.
Dukes' ruling says the church does not have to meet the tighter standards because it submitted its request for a building permit in 2007 -- before the new restrictions took effect. He also suggested that a new permit was not even necessary because a permit issued in 1997 for the church's master plan, which included the fellowship hall, was still valid.
Steve Blankenship, chairman of the church's board of trustees, said the fellowship hall would host banquets and special events currently held in the sanctuary. That arrangement requires parishioners to spend hours setting up and taking down chairs used for Sunday service.
"If we could get the go-ahead, we're ready to start on the construction of the building," he said. "But we can't do anything now until we get a building permit."
The church has spent more than $30,000 in legal fees over the past five years, according to Blankenship.
The county has spent "several tens of thousands dollars" on its legal defense, costs that Gruber said are recouped through an insurance policy.